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North of the Sun: outdoors culture & remote communities in Norway

When traveling across Scandinavia a few years ago, we most appreciated the casual sense of caring about the outdoors. The outdoors isn’t something abstract to protect, detached from the modern experience; on the contrary, Nature is for everyone to share.

And so, everyone is free to explore Nature and park their campervan wherever they please, as long as there isn’t a sign that states otherwise (say, in private properties) and it’s done responsibly.

They call this right to roam Allemannsretten in Norwegian (Allemansrätten in Swedish), or “everyman’s right.” And they feel it passionately: it’s a law allowing everyone to roam free on uncultivated land. One can do so in Norway amid some of the most breathtaking landscapes.

Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess was also an outdoor enthusiast and mountaineer; he coined the term “deep ecology”

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, one of the fathers of modern drama, yearned nonetheless for the romantic enchantment of the Big Outdoors. Like the American transcendentalists, Ibsen idealized the value of going deep in the woods and surviving in remote locations; he called this aspiration “friluftsliv,” literally “open-air living.” Since his description in the 1850s, friluftsliv has become a synonym for outdoor living, and nowadays, it is a Scandinavian aspiration.

Ibsen’s poems are often an aspiration to blend with Nature; he does so with an ease that would have been recognized by Walt Whitman. In the poem “On The Heights” (1859), the protagonist, a young farmer, faces one dilemma: should he take over the family farm, or live the free life of the hunter?

In his struggle to clear the dilemma, we follow the man on a one-year solo trek across the mountains. He meets a stranger who challenges him:

“Why, come evening, yearn for mother’s
House down yonder? Tell me whether
You sleep better under covers

Than on the plumed brown highland heather?”
“Reindeer race across the moorland;
After them, go hell-for-leather! –
Better that than clearing poor land
Down there, piling stones together!”

Henrik Ibsen, On The Heights, 1859

Right to roam and open-air living: the closeness of fjords and peaks of coastal islands and dark blue waters concealing an immensity underneath makes Norwegians familiar to outdoors lovers in North American areas of the Pacific Northwest, Alaska or Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Wittgenstein’s cabin in Skjolden

During our trip across Scandinavia, we visited the interior of the deep Sognefjord (called King of the Fjords, as it’s the largest and deepest in Norway) in search of the cabin Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had built there, perched at its very source, to reflect on life and write his most influential book; when we visited Skjolden, there were only the foundations where the cabin stood; it has been rebuilt since.

After hiking to Wittgenstein’s cabin, we followed our travels north, arriving in Trondheim, the old Nidaros, shortly after; we were traveling on a modern car, but all I could picture was the Medieval world of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (Bergman was Swedish). After the Viking Christianization, Nidaros Cathedral became the seat of a vast archdiocese that, during the time of the Sagas, governed the north of the country and also Norse enclaves in the British Hebrides, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Gardar (the early Norse settlement in Greenland).

The spectacular facade of Nidaros Cathedral, in the sober Romanesque-Gothic style of the early Middle Ages, must have impressed the mostly pagan population inhabiting the farms out in the countryside. It was as warm as it can get in Trondheim when we visited; the day was sunny and balm, and the statues from the facade inspired our oldest daughter to draw a church, as well as a king and a queen. Nidaros had been indeed a pilgrimage site and coronation church for Norwegian royalty. (Years after, we’d visit Covarrubias, in Burgos, Spain, where Christina of Norway, daughter of Haakon “the Old” IV and Infanta of Castile, was buried. Born in Bergen in 1234, Christina had visited Nidaros before sailing for Castile to marry the brother of Alfonso X of Castile).

Christina of Norway’s dedicated statue in Covarrubias, Burgos, Spain (Kristina Håkonsdotter; 1234 – 1262, Infanta of Castile); I took this picture on our visit to the area two years ago; the sculpture was made by Brit Sørensen; there’s a copy in Tønsberg

We didn’t keep traveling north. Looking at the map at night while sleeping at the Nicokoia turf-roofed log cabin with a couple of friends from Trondheim University, I read about Lofoten and its mysteries; we’ll come back one day, I thought.

Hours of travel north of Trondheim, the sense of natural beauty and remoteness forges personalities; it also captivated the imagination of generations of teenagers and young readers of adventure, science fiction, and even horror stories. The remote cod fishing villages of the Arctic archipelago of Lofoten, in the county of Nordland, is a place where controversial writer Knut Hamsun, as influent in modern literature as infamous for his unscrupulous late-life support of the Nazi Occupation many years after the war, spent his formative years (here’s the house where he grew up). His mature book, Markens Grøde (Growth of the Soil), is an account of peasant life in the far north, following one family’s homesteading, simple life, and the arrival of modernity, with its unstoppable consequences. I have read, and enjoyed very much, Knut Hamsun: Hunger, Pan, and Growth of the Soil are among my favorites.

A man comes walking north

As a young man, Hamsun lived in America for several years, almost transmuting into the hobo character he describes in the modernist novel Sult (Hunger), pioneering the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique. Like many of his characters, he wandered, traveled, and worked at various menial jobs. He didn’t find riches in the New World, though the odd jobs and adventures were crucial for his writing career—the equivalent of the Klondike Gold Rush to Jack London.

As a very old man, however, his Anglophobia and crankiness increased as he refused to distance himself from the Occupation.

Remote hut north of Norway; image provided by Henrik: “The artist Jan Wanggaard has made this quite secret driftwood cabin. One has to take a small ferry and walk 4 hours over a 400m mountain pass to get there. I would gladly take the trip with you”

“A man comes walking north. He carries a sack, the first sack, containing provisions for the road and some implements. The man is strong and rough-hewn, with a red lion beard and little scars on face and hands, sites of old wounds–were they gotten at work or in a fight? Maybe he has been in jail and wants to go into hiding, or perhaps he is a philosopher looking for peace; in any case, here he comes, a human being in the midst of this immense solitude. He walks and walks, in a silence broken by neither bird nor beast.”

Knut Hamsun, Growth of the Soil, 1917

Two literary giants of the nineteenth century created awe and have scared many readers describing the Maelström (Moskstraumen) or giant ocean whirlpools that form near Lofoten. I’ve always been thankful to the teacher who recommended my school class to read all of Edgar Allan Poe stories. I remember how in awe I was after reading A Descent into the Maelström, when an old man who claims he’s not old but aged quickly explains from the top of a mountain what happened one time down by the water, in front of him and the narrator.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s cabin at Skjolden: perched over the deepest point of Sognefjord, the cabin has been rebuilt since we visited the place a few years back

After a storm, the ship where he worked with his two brothers got caught in the outer vortex of the whirlpool. Edgar Allan Poe creates a very credible, intense and scary story in which the huge ship is sucked by the whirlpool like a blade of straw. He had to survive to tell the story, which I just reread to write this. And man, does it hold. Edgar Allan Poe had translators like Charles Baudelaire (French), Borges, Bioy Casares and Cortázar (Spanish), or Pessoa (Portuguese) because all of them wanted to decipher the precise mastery of his chilling poetry and prose.

“We had now been about ten minutes upon the top of Helseggen, to which we had ascended from the interior of Lofoden, so that we had caught no glimpse of the sea until it had burst upon us from the summit. As the old man spoke, I became aware of a loud and gradually increasing sound, like the moaning of a vast herd of buffaloes upon an American prairie; and at the same moment I perceived that what seamen term the chopping character of the ocean beneath us, was rapidly changing into a current which set to the eastward. Even while I gazed, this current acquired a monstrous velocity. Each moment added to its speed –to its headlong impetuosity. In five minutes the whole sea, as far as Vurrgh, was lashed into ungovernable fury; but it was between Moskoe and the coast that the main uproar held its sway. Here the vast bed of the waters, seamed and scarred into a thousand conflicting channels, burst suddenly into frenzied convulsion –heaving, boiling, hissing –gyrating in gigantic and innumerable vortices, and all whirling and plunging on to the eastward with a rapidity which water never elsewhere assumes except in precipitous descents.”

A Descent Into the Maëlstrom, Edgar Allan Poe, 1841

Jules Verne must have read Poe before bringing the Nautilus from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea near the Maelström vortex once again.

“The Maelstrom! Could a more frightening name have rung in our ears under more frightening circumstances? Were we lying in the dangerous waterways off the Norwegian coast? Was the Nautilus being dragged into this whirlpool just as the skiff was about to detach from its plating?”

“As you know, at the turn of the tide, the waters confined between the Faroe and Lofoten Islands rush out with irresistible violence. They form a vortex from which no ship has ever been able to escape. Monstrous waves race together from every point of the horizon. They form a whirlpool aptly called “the ocean’s navel,” whose attracting power extends a distance of fifteen kilometers. It can suck down not only ships but whales, and even polar bears from the northernmost regions.”

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne, 1870

The remote scars of Europe’s cruelest war

Today, it still feels like a feat to get to Lofoten. It’s so far away from Oslo that anyone willing to drive beyond the Arctic Circle to hit the latitude 68 degrees north (the same as Alaska, Greenland, and Siberia) to get there, would spend at least a couple of days doing so —or attempt to drive 22 hours non-stop (with two or more drivers?). A campervan and no deadline would do it.

The Tvergastein hut in the Hallingskarvet massif played an important role in Næss’s philosophy; he spent weeks on end at his simple hut, 1,500 metres up a mountain, the highest private cabin in Scandinavia

There’s a train going north from Oslo, although it doesn’t cover all the itinerary. Most people simply fly to Bodø, which takes two and a half hours, and then either take a ferry to the town of Moskenes; or take a local flight to Leknes or Svolvær. One thing is clear for those who make it to Lofoten from the southern tip of Scandinavia: the Scandinavian Peninsula is long, stretching way beyond the Arctic Circle. Once near Lofoten, we’re in Aurora Borealis territory, a place where whales are easily seen (blue, beluga, humpback, orcas) and where Arctic foxes, walruses, and polar bears can be seen in winter.

It would take anyone at least 13 hours to drive from Lofoten to Skarsvag, on the northern tip of Norway. Even using studded tires, driving the 553.4 remaining miles could be challenging during the Polar Night, which lasts from November to January.

The same solitary cabin against the elements; image provided by Henrik; Jan Wanggaard knows where to get his inspiration (a Norwegian artist, he was also World Champion in windsurfing in 1981

We would have liked to travel across the Norwegian far north, trying to blend references with the reality in front of us: Isak’s first cabin from Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, or the remote cabin where Trond Sanders, aged 67, decides to go live in Per Peterson’s “Out Stealing Horses.” We had read about the northern island of Karlsøya, which had attracted a bunch of anarchists and eco-farmers trying to live off the land. Somebody showed us a video about it.

Then, sometime after our visit, Henrik, one follower of Kirsten’s channel emailed us, inviting our family to visit Lofoten, mentioning one interesting project: the conversion of a WWII German bunker into a living space:

“I used primarily salvaged materials and driftwood and carried it all up the hill. The space has many creative details and features.”

A long email conversation with Henrik followed, in which he introduced us to an interesting community of inhabitants living in and around Lofoten: Franciska Eliassen, a local filmmaker, built a cozy soil hut covered in turf; Inge Wegge and Jørn built an underground hut on a remote beach; Inge also erected an Earthship in Kabelvåg to benefit from the building’s all-year-round stable temperature. Henrik has also documented several other interesting dwellings, from driftwood cabins to a greenhouse home whose exterior glass structure follows the tensegrity principles of geodesic domes. Lofoten keeps inspiring artists, writers, and those seeking a more intense relationship with the elements.

Arne Naess’ hut

The war in Ukraine has made Scandinavia enter a new era of hyper-awareness; Finland and Norway share border with Russia at the northern tip of the Scandinavian Peninsula, and Sweden also perceives Russia’s presence in the region, which has abandoned its historically neutral position to join NATO (Norway is a founding member, whereas Finland joined in 2023 and Sweden in 2024).

A philosopher perched on a remote mountain cabin

If there’s one country in Europe that can rival the natural majesty of North America, it’s Norway. In Norway, fjords go deep inland, only interrupted by steep foothills, green and snow-peaked, from which water cascades everywhere in the warmer months and flowers blossom with hyperactivity before the cold returns —and, up north, a long winter night brings people inside.

Norwegians’ relation to Nature may also bring some resemblance to other strong outdoors, extreme-adventure traditions, with an adaptation to extreme cold that may explain ancient epics described in the Viking literary Sagas, from the vanished early Norse settlement in Greenland to the more than plausible arrival in “Vinland” (Canada’s Terranova) in the early Middle Ages.

Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole prevailed in the Heroic Age of Arctic and Antarctic exploration thanks to survival techniques that blended modern techniques with ancient Nordic wisdom against extreme cold, from a planned diet against scurvy to better clothing, albeit a traditional one: while Scott’s team used wool and rubber clothing—the most technical clothing in their era—Amundsen preferred to follow the example of the Inuit, wearing loosely fitted animal fur. Amundsen may have known that the inability of Norse settlers to learn from the local Inuits sharing Greenland left them unprepared when the harsher winters of the Little Ice Age hit, leaving them unable to plant crops to feed horses and cows.

The philosophy of Arne Næss, a proponent of the term “deep ecology,” is also proof of the unique way Norwegians may have perceived Nature and the unbeatable, dramatic landscape of mountains diving into deep fjords amid demanding conditions of survival and isolation. A mountaineer and philosopher, Næss spent weeks at a time at his rudimentary cabin perched on a mountain at 1,500 meters of altitude; Arne Næss died in Oslo in 2008 at the age of 96, but the simple wooden dwelling atop Hallingskarvet remains in place, observing Hardangerfjord and the 40 kilometer-long downslope into the North Atlantic.

A short, intense summer

North of the Scandinavian Peninsula, the contrast between the high activity months around late spring and summer and the rest of the year is stark, as if humans reacted to Nature’s rush to unfreeze and abandon lethargy: grass, flowers and insects, birds, and animals reclaim seashore, creeks, hills and meadows, and work resumes in outdoor activities like construction. Festivities and family gatherings seem to want to reclaim lost time.

Yet extreme seasonal variation and a lack of light intensity for most of the year don’t prevent Norwegians from reporting among the highest levels of life satisfaction in the world. Access to the most spectacular outdoors in Western Europe (if Switzerland concedes), democratized access to spring sports, and the ability to consistently pull above its weight thanks to its soft power (foreign policy contributions, EV adoption, education focus, cultural influence from Henrik Ibsen and the Four Greats to today’s array of internationally-recognized writers: Knausgård, Per Peterson, Jo Nesbø, Jan Kjærstad, and many more) may be the culprits.

Our friend Henrik shared a few pictures of whimsical cabins in and around Lofoten Islands, above Norway’s Arctic Circle; Inge and Jørn’s hut

When trying to explain why Norway became a literary powerhouse despite hosting a population of 5.5 million people (the metro areas of London, Paris, Madrid, and Milan have a bigger population, while Barcelona and Berlin are close), a friend of ours, a Norwegian, suggested the long-winters hypothesis: confronted with exceptional harshness outdoors, people developed an appreciation for indoor activities like table games—with traces in the early Viking period—and also literature, from the Sagas to Jon Fosse, the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Having long winters doesn’t explain it all. Not long ago, before the riches of oil exploitation transformed the country, Norway was perceived as the least cosmopolitan, least developed, and most backward society among Scandinavian countries, with a population mainly relying on fishing, maritime services, subsistence agriculture, and timber.

Modern Sagas

During the late nineteenth century, not only Irish or Southern Europeans migrated in droves from rural areas to the New World, but Scandinavians, too. Some of the 4.5 or so Americans claiming Norwegian ancestry, especially those living in the Upper Midwest, have developed idiosyncrasies linked to the Old World, from their accent (watch Fargo by the Cohen Brothers for more on this) to a particular way of looking at the world.

Today, Norway is perceived as a dream society, among the wealthiest, best educated, most literary, longest-living, most forward-thinking societies, or some sort of poster child of human development. However, instead of boasting about themselves or waving the flag of chauvinism and condescension towards others, Norwegians will shove off any superficial adulation with reservation and modesty, if not embarrassment.

Upon our arrival near Nidaros Cathedral, I asked the family to stay around the building so we could contemplate it

We want to visit soon to meet friends Laxmi and Sindre Mekjan (who happens to be a writer—which doesn’t seem to be odd since this is Norway—and a tremendous reader), and also attend perhaps the Lillehammer Literary Fair (Norwegian Festival of Literature, Norsk Litteraturfestival), taking place every year since 1995 in this location of the 1994 Winter Olympics. It’s Scandinavia’s largest literary festival. The train connection from Oslo climbs inland along Norway’s largest lake, Mjøsa.

As a lover of sculpture, both figurative and abstract, I really enjoyed finding the figurative masterpieces of Gustav Vigeland spread across Oslo; a local sculptor and wood carver contemporary of Rodin, Bourdelle, or Maillol, he lacked their international recognition.

When in Paris between 1891 and 1896, Vigeland frequented Auguste Rodin’s workshop; in Italy, during the same period of international voyages, he focused on the Renaissance. And—this doesn’t surprise me, as I sort of saw something about him there—Vigeland was engaged in the restoration of Nidaros Cathedral until 1902. I may take a day off on my own next time in Norway and go check out the Vigeland Museum.

Henrik Lande Andersen converted a World War II bunker in Lofoten into a Spartan refuge

I wonder if it’s too late to learn some notions of Norwegian and get to read some of the texts I love in the original. Borges taught himself Old Norske to read the Sagas. Though I know, I’m no Borges.